Black Country, New Road – ‘Ants From Up There’ review: majestic, romantic indie-rock

This future cult classic, released amid the departure of singer Isaac Wood, packs accessible sounds without sacrificing the band's musical wizardry

“The next Arcade Fire – that’s our goal,” experimentalists Black Country, New Road joked at the start of 2020, riffing on the fact that the two bands have sprawling casts (the latter boasted seven at the time) while sounding almost nothing alike. Yet, surprisingly, with their second album, it seems they’ve delivered on that promise. Arriving just 364 days after the band’s debut – and mere days after lead vocalist Isaac Wood’s shock resignation from the group – this is a reinvention of striking proportions.

2021 debut ‘For The First Time’ introduced a virtuosic, London-formed band who traversed experimental rock, post-punk and more with a compellingly restless nature, but ‘Ants From Up There’ sees them settle into a completely different stride. A outlier on the debut, ‘Track X’, was a tender curveball that found Wood singing akin to Sufjan Stevens – rather than speaking – over soft indie, hinting at a very different future for the outfit, and this collection takes that sound to the next level.

On ‘Ants From Up There’, a truly remarkable collection, Black Country, New Road manage to pivot towards more familiar, accessible sounds and embrace traditional song structures – without sacrificing an ounce of their musical wizardry or inventiveness. The album’s ‘Intro’ begins with a whirlwind of sax and violin, but swaps the intensity of older tracks for a gorgeous warmth, before guitars and drums reminiscent of Los Campesinos! (yes, really) crash their way in.

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This leads straight into ‘Chaos Space Marine’, a three-and-a-half minute tune closer to a traditional indie single than it ever felt possible to hear from this band. When it careers into a simply joyous, thunderous chorus imbued with the communal power of, yes, Arcade Fire, it feels like the group are barging down the door and charging into a new era. Elsewhere, highlights ‘Concorde’ and ‘Good Will Hunting’ flow towards cathartic, cacophonous endings, while ‘Mark’s Theme’, written for saxophone player Lewis Evans’ uncle – a huge early supporter of the band who passed away from COVID in February last year, the day before they released their debut – is a blissful interlude suitably led by Evans’ sax.

As well as swapping talking for singing, Wood’s lyrics on ‘Ants From Up There’ are also deeply – and at points hopelessly – romantic. Where ‘For The First Time’ saw Wood strive to be Mark E. Smith or Slint’s Brian McMahan, here he’s Conor Oberst or Neutral Milk Hotel‘s Jeff Mangum. “It’s just been a weekend, but in my mind we summer in France with our genius daughters,” he sings on ‘Good Will Hunting’, later thinking of a girl with Billie Eilish style.”

Despite the bombast, there’s a new intimacy here. On ‘Bread Song’, he laments being kicked out of bed by a partner for eating toast between the sheets; when he sings “I was made to love you / Can’t you tell?!” on ‘Concorde’, he sounds utterly incredulous, letting his endlessly literate and wordy musings from the debut album be replaced by pure feeling.

It’s strange to think that had Nervous Conditions – the experimental post-punk group from whose ashes Black Country formed – not imploded, we may never have seen Wood emerge from the shadows to take up the mic front and centre and become a generational storyteller. The record’s music and messages seem feel doubly vital in the wake of frontman’s announcement and immediate departure, meaning ‘Ants From Up There’ may be his footnote as well as the band’s masterpiece.

Through the anthemic ‘The Place Where He Inserted The Blade’ and slow-building ‘Snow Globe’, all roads here lead to mammoth closer ‘Basketball Shoes’, a track Black Country, New Road have had in their pockets since 2019. Across 12 astonishing minutes, it sweeps majestically through verse after verse, stopping for delicate instrumental breaks and incorporating a raging two-minute emo song halfway through, led by Luke Mark’s twangy, addictive guitar riff. An outro befitting of an album as grand in scale as this is then duly rolled out, with guitars, saxophones, violins and Wood’s voice rising like a hurricane.

“We’re all working on ourselves / And we’re praying that the rest don’t mind how much we’ve changed,” he sings halfway through the track, surely aware that this is precisely what makes the band such a fascinating, unknowable prospect. Of course, the DNA of Black Country, New Road means that ‘Ants From Up There’ is surely far from a final form for the group, especially as they have confirmed that they will continue as a six-piece in Wood’s absence.

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It’s futile, then, to debate over what album three and beyond might hold for the now-sextet, but wherever they do end up, this singular record will remain a stunning collection to be cherished for years to come, and a remarkable high on which to end Wood’s tenure at the front of the band. It’s a future cult classic.

Details

Release date: February 4

Release label: Ninja Tune

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